Like Steven Spielberg's 1985 screen adaptation of Alice Walker's novel, "The Color Purple," "Precious" has generated emotional and defensive controversy. Both films contain fathers who rape their daughters, and "Precious" adds a mother who continues to sexually abuse her daughter after that father has left (besides a dizzying range of other abuses). The harshest criticism so far has come from Armond White of "The New York Press" weekly in Manhattan. White accuses Daniels and executive co-producers Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry -- all three have spoken publically about their own childhood abuse -- of "pandering and opportunism," creating a "sociological horror show," and the most racist depiction of African Americans since "Birth of a Nation." On the other hand, commentators like NYU-based journalist Cindy Rodriguez (who wrote for "The Post-Standard" some years ago), have written astutely and persuasively about how "Precious" lays out the persistent legacy of slavery and racism that surfaces in the self-worth of many of these characters. Lest we imagine that the 1987 setting safely distances this story, a host of commentary has focused on the present-day plight of similar girls. In the current issue of "O Magazine," Winfrey remarks, "I see this girl every day, and I never saw her."
There's no doubt the story's volatile, and even "The New York Times"' A.O. Scott, who admires this film, calls it "florid" -- which isn't all that far from "lurid." But while the subject matter is certainly florid, I want to distinguish that from the way the movie itself is made and talk instead about the film's restraint. Because in fact Daniels and his cast and crew have refrained from many easy, slapdash things that ruin countless movies by shoving our emotions around. I noticed this first fairly early in the movie -- steeling myself at a dramatic moment when I half-expected the music to swell manipulatively and, miraculously, it didn't. "Precious" does have a lively soundtrack that's already out on CD, but Daniels lets his actors do their work.